Over the course of this presidential election cycle there has been much ado about economic justice, income inequality and the disappearance of the middle class. No one has argued these realities more forcefully than the candidates on both extremities of our political spectrum. The far right espouses a traditional populist thread of xenophobic nationalism and the far left is railing against the 1% with a familiar theme of - workers of America unite. Both portend a singular focus on helping those left behind and seemingly cut out of the "American Dream." Both political vectors ascribe blame squarely to the elites and the "haves." Both point their fingers at the other America. Both also have very stark contrasts in: to whom their respective messages appeal and motivate, and in so called solutions to the problem of the failure of the nation's political class to meet the expectations of "the American People." There are true believers who subscribe to either extremity and there are those who find value in associating themselves with the core messages of either extremity. Both have perched themselves upon the take America back soapbox. The difference lies in who you believe, "we," must take America back from; the 1%, the billionaire class, liberal elites, the liberal media, minorities, illegals, corporate America or government dependents who require government programs to survive; whether they be the Iowa corn farmer, the Appalachian family living in a trailer or the senior raising her grandchildren in public housing. One has a hyper-nationalist populist message that resonates with a shrinking demographic and the other has a revolutionary themed populist message.
At either end of the spectrum, what is noticeably absent is the racial redress component to their respective messages. There are a myriad of dangers that are inherent in continuing in the hallucination of a post-racial America or in the supremacy of the class analysis, but more importantly and perhaps, more subtly, is the hypocrisy of challenging America's economic status quo by expunging America of her racist economic foundation. We would not, as a nation be entertaining a debate about how to arrest America's economic and social decline from the world's preeminent hyper power, were it not for the Transatlantic Slave Trade (operative word being trade) and the institution of Chattel Slavery throughout the Americas.
How can we engage in robust debate about ending income inequality, wage theft and poverty without understanding and acknowledging our economic history and the seemingly immortal legacy that slavery has left for us to grapple with? There has been no greater example of income inequality, wage theft and worker exploitation than that of slavery. For hundreds of years, millions of people were forced to provide the most productive, innovative, and accountable labor in the history of western civilization for free. Government sanctioned slavery meant that the hundreds of years, of millions of people laboring for free acted as a core driver of economic growth and GNP/GDP expansion. While we don't typically think of slavery in terms of GDP it was the presence of the free labor pool and its maintenance over the course of hundreds of years that propelled America to the global economic fore.
The first enslaved Africans were brought to America, to what became Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 by Dutch settlers to aide in developing their agrarian industry. Slavery did not end until the end of the Civil War in 1865. Some 246 years after the firsts Africans were forcibly brought to America. After slavery came Jim Crow Segregation, which was another socio-economic system, which codified the ethos of Black spiritual, physiological, psychological, social, political and economic inferiority to whites. This period of the segregation-based southern economy lasted 87 years, from the Tilden-Hayes Compromise, which ended of the period of Reconstruction, in 1877, until the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. The Board of Ed of Topeka, Kansas, which reversed the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision (1896) establishing the constitutional principle of "separate but equal." Many believe, that the legal and economic system of segregation lasted well beyond Brown v. Board; many say until this day, especially in education and criminal justice. With the displacement of Jim Crow as the southern social order, America transitioned to an era of criminalization of poverty and its tangents, ultimately maturing into slavery's grandson; Mass Incarceration. Similar to slavery and Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration is not just a social order; it is an economic order, mechanism and system, which, like its predecessors, codifies the creation of a cheap labor pool.
As poverty in this country is born disproportionately by blacks so goes the criminalization of poverty. There are disproportionally more Blacks living in poverty than any other group, save for perhaps Native Americans. Consequently, there are disproportionately more Blacks who are criminalized as a result of poverty. Mass incarceration is a function of the criminalization of poverty and the war on drugs, which again, disproportionately destroys black individuals, families and communities. But if not for the "slavery loophole" in the 13th Amendment:
the conversation would be for naught. Here is how a race absent economic analysis falls short: There currently exists today, in America, in 2016, a population of roughly 2,000,000+ people subject to legal slavery and involuntary servitude. As of 2009 a full 60% of that 2,000,000 are Black. That's approximately 1.2 million Blacks currently, constitutionally subject to slavery and involuntary servitude. This figure does not include the millions of other Blacks who are subject to one form of judicial or law enforcement supervision, or another; like parole.
"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction,"
Many argue, that today's prisons cannot be equated to the institution of Chattel Slavery. In many respects that is true, but for our purposes, the fundamental point is that since the beginning of the European sojourn in the "new world," roughly 400 years, Africans and their descendants have been legally and forcibly relegated to economic and social servitude of one form or another, with the expressed intention of undergirding America's economy. That's 400 years of a racially rigged economy in one form or another, to one degree or another. Couple the statistical reality of Black America's relationship to the Criminal Justice System, with the movement towards privatization of prisons and what we have is the transfer of the current "slave" or population of "involuntary servants" from state custody to corporate custody. Now corporations can legally and directly profiteer due to the existence of a Black dominated free to low cost labor force.
The debate over income inequality, poverty and living wages starts with Black folks and in many respects ends with Black folks. We are an economic bellwether precisely because of our unique history and current reality as America's free to cheap labor force. Not until Blacks are equal in opportunity and proportionally in outcomes we will have failed to reach that racial homeostasis that the post-racial thinkers, wrongfully, believe we have today. Likewise it becomes the Achilles heal of the class-based analysis and its proponents.
Minister Kirsten John Foy